We have to press on

At a “Community Campaign” event, Hernán Crespo, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees local 793, chats with UW provost Alan George.
At a “Community Campaign” event, Hernán Crespo, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees local 793, chats with UW provost Alan George.

One of the darkest most shameful moments in your university’s history came in 1992—and no, I don’t refer to the ban on roller-blades, which was more or less counterbalanced by the introduction of bicycles (and shorts) for the campus police on warm summer days. No, I’m talking about the decision to introduce something called a “gopher” to computers across the university.

Sure, it was created by software people at the University of Minnesota, where the mascot is the Golden Gopher, but when it was brought to Waterloo couldn’t it have been given a new, more appropriate name? I’m thinking of something that would honour one of my neighbours here along Laurel Creek: the UWinfo Muskrat, maybe, or the UWinfo Woodchuck. But no: your computing services weaseled out, so to speak, and introduced a “gopher” as the vehicle for the central electronic information system. At the beginning of 1992, nobody had ever heard of such a thing; by the end of the year they were lining up for briefing sessions on how to make the most of it to get at information about the libraries, coming events, and university policies. The days of print publications at the university were numbered.

In general, I have to remind you, 1992 was a tough year, mostly for economic reasons. The finances of the university were undoubtedly terrible, president Doug Wright said as 1992 began, and that was before the Ontario government announced that it was freezing grants to universities and eliminating the longstanding student grant program, leaving an all-loan system of student aid. Alan George, the provost, responded to the grant freeze by asking employee groups to take a pay freeze, something they weren’t inclined to do. His backup plan was a gradual reduction in operating budgets across the university, 6 per cent over three years, which actually doesn’t sound too horrible by today’s standards but was a very big cut in the early nineties. There was immediate talk of layoffs, and the library—your university’s second-largest department—said it expected to put “eight to ten” people onto the jobless rolls before long. Minor adjustments were made to the university’s policy on staff redundancies, in preparation for the evil day.

No wonder, in those circumstances, that the provost was less than universally popular. He was also, such are the cruel ironies of history, up for assessment at the end of his first term in office; in fact, search committees were at work simultaneously looking at his position and that of the president, as Wright was going to be leaving office in 1993. Somewhere around the time of a horrible January snowstorm that sent everybody home from campus at noontime (except those who couldn’t get their cars out of the parking lots), letters and ballots went across campus, asking faculty and staff members to say whether they thought George should be given a second term in office. The numbers that came back were never made public, and I didn’t like to abuse my trollian skills by slipping into the university secretariat late at night to look for them, but their general shape was soon clear. “I have concluded,” George announced, “that I do not have sufficient support to remain a candidate.” “The system works!” one anti-George faculty member crowed. Some of the deans begged the provost to reconsider, but he wasn’t changing his mind.

“We just have to press on,” said Wright, as suddenly there were lame ducks in the two top offices in Needles Hall. The search for a new provost began, then was suspended for a time, until a president-to-be was named and could take part in it. Finally, the new president was chosen, and his name revealed to campus on a momentous fifth of November. “Jim Who?” people asked, and the answer was repeated: Jim Downey, a name known to very few at Waterloo. He was a former president of the University of New Brunswick, an English professor coming to head a largely technical campus, an orator—“a healer,” one member of the nominating committee told eager listeners. I was pleased to hear that, being easily wounded myself; your university needed a healer in the difficult year of 1992.

Among the things that didn’t get healed all that year was the savage controversy over the resignation—or dismissal, as the case might be—of math professor Jack Edmonds. University officials said they had made “offers” to settle the case, but there was neither a negotiated settlement nor a definitive court ruling. People lamented that the case was destroying Waterloo’s public image, although I would have thought it was tougher than that. Still, it generated almost as much wind power as the storm that swept across Kitchener-Waterloo in five minutes one night in June, destroying hundreds of trees. I was asleep here by the creek at the time, and woke to the splintering noises of an ancient trunk that could stand no more. If it wasn’t a tornado, it was the next thing to it.

I suppose I’m sounding as though everything in 1992 was terrible, and indeed there were days that felt that way. I’m not even going to get into talking about the triple murder at Concordia University in August, for which an apparently deranged faculty member was sent to prison. It led to plenty of could-it-happen-here talk at Waterloo, but there was no direct impact. I also won’t list all the old friends to whom your university said goodbye that year, people like Art Headlam, Nancy-Lou Patterson and Dick Knight. As the university got older, so did the people who worked in it, and retirements were becoming more frequent.

Let me tell you, instead, about some of the good things in that year of 1992, that year of the Albertville and Barcelona Olympics, that year of the “Charlottetown Accord” that Canadian voters rejected, that year free trade with the United States was approved and the cod fishery was closed down. Let me tell you about the remodelling of the registrar’s office, which had students trekking over to a temporary Columbia Street location for several weeks; let me tell you about the final power-down for Watbun, the twenty-year-old Honeywell computer in the math faculty computing facility; let me tell you about the arrest of two students for breaking into a supposedly secure area in plant operations, just before Christmas, and stealing a fistful of campus master keys.

Oh, well, let me try again to remember the things in 1992 that were good. The most important one, I suppose, was the launch of Campaign Waterloo, held with two very tony receptions on a single day in April, one in Toronto and one at the headquarters of Mutual Life in Waterloo. I was in a quiet corner of the Mutual Life auditorium for the second event, listening to the carefully scripted words by the likes of Matthew Barrett, and wondering how a troll is supposed to look elegant while eating canapés. It was proudly announced that advance gifts to the campaign added up to nearly $30 million, towards an official goal of $89 million to be achieved in five years. Of course that included the money students were going to contribute, more than $10 million of it, for a new Student Life Centre, a recreation facility on the north campus, and some smaller “quality of life” projects. In January they had voted 66 per cent in favour of a three-part “plan” to that effect.

While the search was on for millions more in corporate, alumni and government money, your university celebrated its community links with the launch of the Walter Bean Visiting Professorship in environmental studies, and rejoiced when Maclean’s magazine, apparently having seen the error of its ways in the previous year, labelled Waterloo Canada’s “best overall” university. There was more rejoicing when a dean was found at last for the faculty of environmental studies, where it had been hard to come up with the perfect leader; Jeanne Kay arrived from the University of Nebraska to take the helm. And all over campus, new initiatives and new achievements were happening as they always do: a Wetlands Research Centre was created, an “accessibility centre” opened in the Dana Porter Library, the registrar’s office said it was now equipped to receive final marks from professors in computerized form, the food services department launched its “Value Plus” card (predecessor of the WatCard you know and love today).

In an interesting gesture towards self-sufficiency and environmental health, your university even sank a drill deep into the ground next to the biology greenhouses, to guarantee a supply of unchlorinated water to the aquatic laboratories. Well, well, I said when I heard the news.

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